Friday May 8, 2015
"As the dust settles on one of the most remarkable General Election campaigns there will be many inquests into how it was won and lost so decisively. One PR lesson seems to me to be the triumph of message discipline however clunky and lacking in finesse those messages might be.
The Conservatives carefully crafted soundbite ‘competence not chaos’ was designed to contrast what they saw to be their successful management of the economy with the financial firestorm which lead to the fall of the Brown government (and their implied threat this could be repeated under a future Labour Government.) The phrase represents a nice bit of alliteration but is hardly inspiring. Like their other gems: ‘long term economic plan’ and the slightly older ‘fixing the roof whilst the sun is shining’ they invoke a groan factor that makes you want to reach for the red pen. But the approach seems to have worked.
One reason might just be the discipline with which these messages were repeated. ‘Competence not chaos’ found its way into David Cameron’s New Year Message in January and from then onward throughout that very long election campaign we heard it over and over again. This is recognition that in order to reach the modern day audience the magic three times with the same message then repetition is key. It can seem lacking in subtlety to those of us working in communications but to everyone else who is often consuming multiple media at the same time with little attention paid to any, it can be the only way to get through. It is no longer the case, as we know, that our audience is very often exposed to the same medium at the same time – we no longer gather round the office water cooler to discuss a particular programme that was on TV the night before. Instead information cascades over us from multiple sources and the originator of any message has to shout loud and often to be heard.
There was another phenomenon at work here too. Edward Bernays, often seen as one of the founding fathers of PR, coined the phrase ‘semantic tyranny’ in the 1920s when referring to messaging that shaped as much as articulated the agenda. Again ‘competence not chaos’ managed to do that too and over time it came used by commentators on the election as much as by those seeking to be elected. ‘Semantic tyranny’ is designed to cause a sharp divide and force an audience to take a position. Possibly a technique not without controversy but today’s result may lead to a re-examination of just what it can achieve."